“Hakone Ekiden Walk Part 1” featured triathlete Ryotaro Otani, who in addition to running the Ekiden is also known as a sneaker enthusiast. The starting point is the Yomiuri Shimbun’s Tokyo headquarters in Otemachi. Early on a weekend morning, passersby in the business district were few and far between. Every New Year the Hakone relay race, or “Ekiden” as it is known, attracts hordes of spectators to witness college students such as Mr.Otani pounding the tarmac.
The official name of the Hakone Ekiden is the “Tokyo-Hakone Round-Trip College Ekiden Race.” The event is organized by the Kanto Student Athletic Federation and co-sponsored by the Yomiuri Shimbun Newspaper. A total of 21 teams out of the federation get to wear the sash, including the top 10 member universities seeded in the previous year’s tournament, the 10 schools that passed the qualifying round, and the Kanto Region University Student United Team. The 10 sections of the race between the Yomiuri Shimbun headquarters and Lake Ashinoko in Hakone total 217.1 km, making it the longest ekiden race in the student long-distance field.
Otani ran with the Aoyama Gakuin University’s sash in the 10th section in his 3rd year and the 2nd section in his 4th year. The 10th section is almost the same as the 1st section, only in opposite direction. “It was the highest finish in the history of the university, so we were under tremendous pressure until we crossed the tape.”
“The first and tenth sections are run in the heart of Tokyo, and the wind from the buildings is intense. But I am the type of person who likes to look around while I run, so in that sense it was fun. The bright red Tokyo Tower, Zojo-ji , and many large buildings make up the typical Tokyo scenery.”
After starting from Otemachi, the Hakone Road passes by the Imperial Palace, Tokyo Station, Tokyo Tower, Zojo-ji Temple, and continues through Shinagawa and Kawasaki to the Tsurumi relay station in Yokohama. This 21.3 km stretch of road is a popular running course, and we were overtaken by runners, who soon disappear. On this day, Otani was sporting a pair of GLIDE MAX, just released by Salomon in April 2022. These thick-soled and ultra-lightweight running shoes combine outstanding cushioning with a highly durable sole.
“The rigidity and softness of the cushion are perfectly balanced. And fashionable to boot. They are ideal for hiking around town. I compete in triathlons around the world, and I envy these overseas athletes whose shoes go well with their casual wear and allow them to reduce their luggage. You tend to associate Salomon with trail running shoes, but these are great for city walking as well.”
The descent of the Rokugo Bridge over the Tama River at the 18km mark marks the spurt point of the first section. Otani, walking the Hakone Road for the first time, had a spring in his step thanks to his shoes.
The first section ends at the Tsurumi relay station, after which the runners relay the sash to the second section. A monument inscribed with the scene of the relay has witnessed many dramas for a quarter of a century.
“Hakone Ekiden is thrilling to watch, and I think it is an extremely important cultural event for the Japanese. We don’t have anything like this in America.”
So mused PAPERSKY editor-in-chief Lucas, who came along on this Ekiden Walk. The stretch from the Tsurumi relay station onward is a crucial one known as the “flower second section,” and Otani dug deep to ace it in his final year as captain. Receiving the sash in 18th place, he left seven runners in his wake. Two years later, Aoyama Gakuin University went on to claim the overall championship for the first time in its history. His ability to spurt past multiple runners like this was most certainly a coup for his university.
The 23.1 km second section is the longest of the ten, along with the ninth (return) section. While the first half is flat and speedy, there is still the dreaded Gonta Slope around the 13 to 15km mark, and a tough uphill slog for the last 3km to the Totsuka relay station. No wonder it is known as an “ace section” that demands not only speed but also strength.
Even the Gonta slope, which rises 20 meters in about 1.5 km, was plain sailing for Lucas in his XT-6 shoes. Designed for long distances, they provide superior stability and shock absorption.
“I love the fact that these shoes are designed to be comfortable even when strolling round an urban city like Yokohama. They hug my ankles well and feel perfect for rainy days or for trails with muddy sections!”
As the distanced walked increased throughout the day, participants wearing Salomon’s SPEED CROSS 3 keenly sensed the performance of their shoes. The dynamic upper makes for a natural and comfortable gait. Outstanding grip when kicking and braking on the asphalt, these shoes showed their true strength in the demanding second section.
The sun was already setting by the time “Hakone Ekiden Walk Part 1,” reached Totsuka City, having covered more than 44km. There, the walkers encountered a signboard by a local real estate company facing the Hakone Road in support of the Hakone Ekiden. This enables you to see the distance so far and the remaining distance from either side, outward or inward.
“You can tell that the Hakone Ekiden is cherished by the locals. Rather like the old thoroughfares I often trek down – which have been walked by so many people – it is a well-balanced mix of past and present. While this course is intended for running, I still enjoyed the journey on foot. We walked 44 km and could have done a little more if pushed on.”
Such an effervescent Lucas struggled to contain his enthusiasm as he spotted the Hakone Ekiden manhole cover and jumped for joy upon reaching the Totsuka relay station, the finishing point for an epic walk. His palpable sense of accomplishment seemed to mirror just slightly, that of the runner statue he saw at the start of the race.